Book Review: "Debt-Free Degree: The Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Your Kid Through College Without Student Loans"

This article is part of NASFAA's occasional book review series, where members share their reflections on books, published within the past five years, on higher education themes of interest to financial aid professionals. The opinions offered and statements made do not imply endorsement by NASFAA or the authors' employers and do not guarantee the accuracy of information presented. Would you like to suggest a book for a future review? Email us at news@nasfaa.org with your recommendation.

In a book titled "Debt-Free Degree," author Anthony ONeal provides solutions, examples, best practices, and a detailed roadmap to getting a child through college while avoiding student debt. ONeal explains how starting the conversation of a debt-free college education as early as middle school will enhance a child's journey through the college experience and enable them to graduate from college with minimal or zero student loan debt. "By and large, 'Debt-Free Degree' is exceptionally well-organized, and it provides a means of responsibly preparing students and families financially for college and putting students in the best position possible to succeed," writes Shannon Crossland, who read the book and shared her unbiased opinions of its content at the request of NASFAA. What follows are her takeaways, thoughts and reflections.

Reviewed by Shannon Crossland, Senior Director of Student Financial Aid and Scholarships at Texas Tech University

Shannon CrosslandWhether we turn on the news, scan the newspaper, scroll social media, or research college costs and rankings on the internet, student loan debt is a frequent, trending topic. The conversation about student loan debt, as well as student loan forgiveness and cancellation, is often referred to as the "trillion-dollar question," and many describe the issue as a crisis harming the American economy.

What does this mean to parents at the moment when their child mentions the word "college" in casual conversation? They may immediately feel overwhelmed by big questions: How will we pay for our child to go to college? What are our options for preparing for college? What if we cannot afford to send our child to a good school? Should we invest in ACT and SAT preparation courses to get better scores?

In his 2019 book, "Debt-Free Degree," Anthony ONeal provides solutions, examples, best practices, and a detailed roadmap to getting a child through college while avoiding student debt. ONeal, who also co-authored the 2017 bestseller, "Graduate Survival Guide: 5 Mistakes You Can't Afford to Make in College," provides a chronological guide for students, beginning with middle school all the way through the senior year in high school, to acquire a debt-free undergraduate degree. The author explains how starting the conversation of a debt-free college education as early as middle school will enhance a child's journey through the college experience and enable them to graduate from college with minimal or zero student loan debt.

Each chapter focuses on a specific planning period – for middle school and each high school year — and features a summary checklist for each year, "Your Smart Grad Plan," to keep families on track for success. Chapters include stories of individual student experiences at each stage, and ONeal also shares his personal experience of going to college without having a financial plan, which led to student loan debt burden upon graduation. He uses his experience to guide families in making the right decisions about higher education by illustrating various scenarios centered on monthly income and expense planning before, during, and after college.

The significance of applying for scholarships and preparing for standardized college admission testing is at the core of "Debt-Free Degree." The author emphasizes an organized plan for scholarship searches that includes smaller local awards as well as national, bigger-money opportunities. Being aware of deadlines, application requirements, and specific instructions enables students to be successful in their search. ONeal stresses making the process of finding and applying for scholarships early and often a daily practice and expectation of your child to increase the chance of receiving awards.

The sophomore- and junior-year chapters focus on SAT and ACT testing. They include a detailed breakdown of each exam with section descriptions, number of questions, time limits, and strategies for success. The chapters discuss case studies of families investing in test preparation courses, as well taking advantage of colleges and universities that superscore, which could prove financially beneficial for students in terms of receiving more scholarship dollars.

The author's easy-to-understand approach to scholarship searches and clear description of the differences between the SAT and ACT would benefit families who have prior experience with college as well as those who are new to the process, which could have a positive impact on college access and completion for first-generation students.

ONeal has stated the most important takeaway of his book is, "[Y]our child's future success does not depend on an elite education! Your child's success depends on him or her." Being honest and transparent with your child regarding their college education, degree program and affordability is essential for their success. The author takes it a step further by encouraging attendance at community college, taking dual degree courses, enrolling in advanced placement and honors courses in high school, and career shadowing. By applying the best practices outlined in the book and having continuous, transparent discussions, families can relieve the burden of debt and focus on achieving educational goals, including graduation.

For financial aid professionals, the title "Debt-Free Degree" suggests information will be provided explaining the process of applying for financial aid. The author devotes only two pages to explaining the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Throughout the book, he emphasizes early planning and preparation for putting students in the best position possible for grants and scholarships; however, the FAFSA guidance is vague. Basic information about FAFSA availability on October 1 of each year, myStudentAid app download, Prior-Prior Year (PPY) tax information, and the IRS data retrieval tool – is not mentioned. Including a thorough explanation of these tools would help students and parents by simplifying the FAFSA application process. Although the author encourages FAFSA completion for students and parents every year, and he gives a brief overview of how the FAFSA is used to determine eligibility for federal programs, he suggests students first complete their FAFSA during their junior year in high school instead of emphasizing completing the application in their senior year to align with college and university FAFSA deadline dates.

By and large, "Debt-Free Degree" is exceptionally well-organized, and it provides a means of responsibly preparing students and families financially for college and putting students in the best position possible to succeed. In addition, "Debt-Free Degree" readies students and families for expectations through the college recruitment cycle, college admissions process, college life, and college graduation. The author encourages families to start the conversation early and keep the dialogue going about college. Obtaining a college degree without debt is possible and requires a lot of hard work, according to ONeal; however, should the need arise to opt for student loans, families should do it responsibly and with careful planning.

Student indebtedness continues to be a trending topic on all levels within our industry.  As financial aid administrators, we need to be persistent, engaged and transparent advocates on student indebtedness for overall student success.

Shannon Crossland is the senior director of student financial aid and scholarships at Texas Tech University. Shannon received an associate degree from Amarillo College, a bachelor's degree in agronomy (soil science) from Texas Tech University, and a master's degree in higher education administration from Texas Tech University.  Shannon is actively involved with her state, regional, and national student financial aid professional associations (TASFAA, SWASFAA, and NASFAA, respectively).  Shannon has served as past president of TASFAA and SWASFAA, and currently serves as a commissioner at large for the NASFAA Certified Financial Aid Administrator™ (CFAA) Commission.

 

Publication Date: 1/3/2020


James H | 1/3/2020 3:6:33 PM

ONEAL has a perspective that loans are to be avoided at all costs. In the real world Room & Board costs are often the reason a family borrows. Loans in moderation and based on a students major and potential job salary is a better method. Borrow no more then you expect to make in salary in your first year after graduation is a guide. If a student has no idea what they want spending time at a community college is a goof strategy. If a student knows what they want and can get into a top 10-15 college the status does have a affect of future earnings and career status. If a student gets into a great college that is elite but not a top 20 I would say often the status of their career path has more to do with how they do once they enter the workforce. Then I would agree with ONEAL is may be better to minimize debt.

Katie H | 1/3/2020 12:40:03 PM

I enjoy listening to Anthony ONeil speak and appreciate his perspective. Although he is strongly opposed to loans, I'm glad he has a passion for helping guide students through the complicated college financial journey. However, I wish he had spent more time talking about the FAFSA--specifically the PPY. So many times students don't even know PJs are an option if their FAFSA is not reflective of their current financial status. Thanks for the review!

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